When 33-year-old Ashoo Mongia visits the supermarket it's rarely for stocking up his fridge for the week. As head of a cow protection enforcement team, he regularly scours Delhi grocery stores and outdoor markets for food products containing cow beef.
Relied on by generations of Indians for tilling fields, dairy products and dung fuel, the cow is regarded by Hindus as gau mata, or maternal figure, and has had a long-standing central role in India's religious rituals. Those religious attitudes, however, are viewed by some Indian business leaders as a major hindrance to commerce.
"Cow beef could be a very lucrative business in India," said Dr. S.K. Ranjhan, the director of Hind Agro Industries Limited, who believes that religious attitudes may stand to change once the extent of business opportunities are realized. "I think five-to-10 years from now, people won't be so scandalized by the sale of cow beef."
The majority of India's 24 states outlaw the slaughter of cows except under extenuating circumstances: to stifle contagious diseases, prevent pain and suffering, medical research, etc. And several states -- including Delhi and Rajasthan, among others -- ban the sale and slaughter of cows altogether.
"When you consider just how much money is made from underground cow smuggling, it becomes clear that not only is there a huge amount at stake, but a huge demand that butchers and slaughterhouses are catering to," said Dr. Zarin Ahmad, a fellow at the Centre de Sciences Humaines in New Delhi, who has extensively studied the work and trade among India's butcher communities.